When you put a power substation next to a park, do you try to hide it, hope people ignore it or lean into its industrial look?
That’s the question raised at a Jan. 18 design charrette held by Lansing’s Board of Water & Light.
At the second of three charrettes — meetings to inform the public about projects and solicit comments — the BWL unveiled three “conceptual designs” for screen walls and a corner plaza that would surround its planned $26 million substation on the present site of Scott Park at Malcolm X Street and Washington Avenue.
A crucial variable in the design, the height of the wall, is still in flux. At Wednesday’s charrette, BWL proposed a wall 12 feet high on the south side along the Grand River, a height of 12 to 14 feet high along Malcolm X Street and 16 to 18 feet along Washington Avenue. The designs included 18-foot-tall “tower elements” at the corners of the wall.
At that height, the upper portion of the transmission towers would be clearly visible above the wall.
That was a sticking point for Dale Schrader, an attendee at both charrettes and member of Preservation Lansing, a citizens group that opposed BWL’s plan to put the substation in Scott Park.
“Even at 20 feet, it’s every bit as ugly as we thought it would be,” Schrader said. “The substation poles tower over the walls.”
Schrader said his group will push for higher walls, including a wall at least 18 feet high on the south side of the substation along the river. (For purposes of comparison, the Great Wall of China is 26 feet 3 inches at its tallest.)
Schrader praised BWL’s detailed presentation and efforts to solicit public input for the wall and plaza designs.
“They’ve been fair in showing what the views would really look like from the various points,” he said.
But he added that the result would be “ugly” no matter what happens.
“A lot of people, including our group, expressed concerns about the minimal heights of the walls,” Schrader said. “You can see the entire steel spine of the substation if it’s only 12 feet.”
Schrader and other foes of the substation plan are still stinging from a bitter defeat last fall. In a 7-1 vote Sept. 26, Lansing’s City Council approved BWL’s plan to remove the nearly 100-year-old Scott Center building and move the 86-year-old sunken garden, both of which are in the 6-acre Scott Park, to make room for a new four-acre substation.
The utility proposes moving the garden to the southwest corner of the 2 acres of Scott Park that would survive.
BWL officials argued that the screen wall, and the bells and whistles that go along with it, will create a fresh, highly visible gateway to REO Town, the resurgent district south of downtown. All of the designs shown at Wednesday’s charrette provided for views of the river, including a viewing station near the relocated sunken garden, as well as a proposed fishing platform on the south side and a stairway down to the existing River Trail on the river’s south bank.
The first two sets of designs featured a red brick wall broken up with towers and lighter layers of limestone. In the first set of designs, the wall was topped by curved metal louvers in various combinations. At Wednesday’s charrette, two people commented that the first set of designs looked like a “ballpark” and didn’t fit with REO Town’s overall look.Ken Jones of Studio Intrigue Architects, one of the presenters Wednesday, said he had already heard that comment from several people.
The second design played with variations on window-like cutouts, from metal louvers to McMansion-style windows with curved tops.
The third design got the most vocal support from the 30 people attending the charrette.
It uses darker masonry and window gratings, with the feel of public works projects and factories of the 1930s and ‘40s. Jones said the design was a response to community members who said the screen walls and plaza should reflect the “grit” of REO Town. Following the industrial theme, the corner plaza of the third design included three 8-foot-tall vertical columns subtly suggesting the famous three smokestacks, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, atop the nearby Eckert Power Station, which is scheduled to close in 2020. One variant of the third design included circular “portholes” that peek inside. Jones said the window-like gratings and portholes were added in response to public suggestions that the walls include views of the substation infrastructure and not try so hard to hide it.
All of the designs prominently featured new tree plantings and a lot of public art. BWL has committed to a budget of $20,000 every three years for adding art to the screen wall.
A few of the designs presented included “green walls,” with plantings of various sizes and types, including “writable moss,” or moss that can be painted on to a surface in any desired design. But Jones emphasized that “green walls” have maintenance requirements that add to the cost.
BWL officials said the walls and plaza have not been assigned their own budget, because the designs are still in the planning phase, but the overall $26 million for the substation provides for some kind of masonry walls, rather than cheaper chain link fence.
A third and final charrette is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 1 at the old Grand Trunk railroad depot next door to the REO Town Cogeneration Plant. BWL has invited community members to contact Annie Rzepecki, the utility’s community relations coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org to make suggestions or schedule a meeting with Studio Intrigue architects.
Eve Kucharski contributed reporting to this story.